The Senate's challenge

May 23, 2002

BIPARTISAN determination to end welfare as we knew it, aided by an extraordinarily strong economy, succeeded beyond almost anyone's hopes. People freed themselves from stigma and a cycle of dependency. Children got a better shot at America's promise. Government -- and taxpayers -- saved money.

Now, with the reform law needing reauthorization, the Bush administration and Congress can install a stable second step on the ladder out of poverty. But the task becomes more difficult, because those recipients who were most employable have gone to work, though life remains precarious for them. Wages are typically low to start -- at the $5.15 minimum-wage rate or slightly higher, and child care costs consume a significant share of that. Ways must be found to help families persevere -- employed and off public assistance.

Unfortunately, some provisions of a bill passed last week by the House and endorsed by the Bush administration seem designed to burnish an outdated and ill-advised tough-on-welfare political stance. Many of those still on welfare face difficult transportation hurdles, low literacy skills and substance abuse problems. But authors of the bill diminish these challenges, arguing that work requirements alone are the key to success.

A bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore -- and defeated on a party-line vote in the majority- Republican House -- would do a much better job in these areas. Its provisions are closer to proposals pending in the Senate, where a bipartisan coalition seems to favor a more compassionate and realistic approach.

Mr. Cardin's bill would have provided $11 billion more for child care, well above the $2 billion added by the House. President Bush's own proposal would have added nothing to the current day care budget of $4.8 billion. States are encouraged to take money from other programs to cover any new child care costs. Given how much money the government has saved over the last five years, an effort to provide adequate child care seems more than appropriate.

Every state will feel pressure from the stricter work requirements: 70 percent of every state caseload must be working or involved in qualified activities for 40 hours a week, up from 50 percent of the caseload working 30 hours. To achieve the higher goals, more child care funds will be needed -- yet the House bill provides too little and includes no provision for inflationary increases in the cost of this critical service.

Some requirements of the House bill appear punitive and self-defeating: Recipients enrolled in various educational and training courses might not be counted as states try to meet the new work quotas. State authorities say they would be obliged to transfer recipients out of promising programs into ones that do count in the reform arithmetic. Cash penalties -- amounting to as much as $33 million in Maryland -- could be imposed if the new quotas are missed.

Much has been made of the Bush bill's $300 million to encourage marriage. Surely, children have a better chance to prosper and learn if two parents are involved in their lives. But to assert the value of intact families while stinting on child care and making education harder to access is questionable at best.

So, if the second chapter of welfare reform is to approach the achievements of the first -- and if the goal is to help people out of poverty -- the Senate must overcome shortcomings in the House bill.

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